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Business Spotlight: Emerging Expert

417 Drone Imaging owner and helicopter pilot Jason Preston works in an increasingly competitive airspace

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Flying drones is a popular hobby, but doing it commercially takes skills – both technical and business related.

Jason Preston, owner and operator of 417 Drone Imaging LLC, is building a reputation locally and nationally, as an expert in this emerging field. He started the part-time business taking aerial photos and videos for real estate and industrial clients, not really expecting to stay busy.

“We’re rolling like a snowball downhill right now. It’s picking up,” he says.

The experienced helicopter pilot and business owner entered the market in mid-2015 during a time of legal turmoil for operators of the small, unmanned aircraft. Facing public outcry about safety and privacy, the federal government originally placed the expectation that drones be flown by people who had earned pilot licenses – which require six weeks of roughly $8,000 training.

“Some guys were doing it in powered parachutes, some in hot air balloons,” Preston says. “Because it didn’t matter what kind of license you had, you just needed a pilot’s license.”

This was not a problem for Preston, who earned a helicopter pilot’s license 14 years ago and currently flies for Mercy Hospital Springfield. But the government still required pilots to follow all other commercial aircraft laws.

“The problem was you couldn’t use it commercially, because you don’t have lighted exit signs, you don’t have seat belts, you don’t have 30 minutes of reserve fuel,” he says.

With his experience, he was able to apply for enough exemptions to start his business before others and get a jump on the competition. New rules, regulations and exemptions were eventually released over time, he says, and now a commercial drone pilot license can be earned with $150 and a written test at a Federal Aviation Administration authorized facility, such as those in Bolivar or Aurora.

“It’s fairly intuitive to fly, and so that’s why a lot of people are getting into it,” he says. “It’s also so easy to fly, people are getting into it who shouldn’t be. That’s why the responsibility level is less than it used to be, because they don’t take the time to learn about the regs and rules.”

Pilots are not allowed to fly their drones directly over people or moving vehicles, he says, and there are many other regulations still in place – such as needing a special waiver to fly at night. Commercial drone operators working without a license can receive a civil fine up to $27,500 and a criminal penalty of $250,000, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

He spent hundred of hours getting to know the technology well and spends part of his time training commercial operators and hobbyists. Preston knows he’s training the competition – which now includes MO Drone Art and Ozark’s Aerial Photography – but says he wants to improve the reputation of the industry and, in turn, expand 417 Drone Imaging’s opportunities.

Mark Harrell, a photographer for the Springfield Cardinals who also does drone work for his own ad agency, says he often calls Preston for advice and assistance on projects. He was hired to shoot aerial photos and videos for the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau and asked Preston to be present, as a second set of eyes and ears, whenever working near an airport or crowds.

“He’s the man around here, the one everybody goes to with questions,” Harrell says.

The home-based side business produced $22,000 in Preston’s second year and he’s on pace for $28,000 in 2017.

With about 35 projects scheduled in July, clients include Noble Communications, Sight & Sound Theatres and agents at Keller-Williams Realty Inc. and Murney Associates LLC, as well as TLC television program “Say Yes to the Dress,” which shot an episode in the Branson area.

Preston also works with fire and law enforcement departments getting overhead views of wildfires and training sessions. He also has the capabilities to help police track suspects and monitor checkpoints. Preston has even received calls from people who wanted help looking for lost pets or livestock and he’d like to help find people during nighttime search-and-rescues – but an infrared camera costs $1,200. So he’s looking for donors to help make that purchase.

“I’d like to do a lot of it as volunteer work,” he says.

417 Drone Imaging spends less than an hour at most job sites and charges $99 for basic photo services or $150 to $250 for all photo and video work during the shoot.

He has six $1,500 DJI Phantom 4 Pro drones, 12 batteries packs and an Apple iPad Air 2. Most of the software is free, but he does pay $1,600 for insurance and $149 for his website annually.

“I’m still in the phase of brand recognition and getting the name out,” he says.

Regional and national media outlets, such as ABC’s “Good Morning America,” also have purchased his footage, making the efforts profitable.

“One of our videos had over a million views,” he says of James River flooding footage near Rivercut.

417 Drone Imaging also landed industrial clients, using special software to make 3-D models for surveying and marketing purposes. Additionally, two clients routinely use Preston to calculate hard-to-measure inventory, like gravel piles.

“We can give them, within about 2 percent accuracy, what the volume of it is,” he says.

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